Hiking In Starved Rock State Park, A Perfect Chicago Day Trip
Sure, Chicago has an awful lot to recommend it…amazing food, architecture, beautiful parks and lakefront or river trails. But if you’re looking for a *real* hiking and nature experience around Chicago, a day trip to Starved Rock State Park is what you need.
Less than 100 miles from downtown Chicago, the park feels like another world. It’s an oasis of towering trees, (seasonal) waterfalls, tons of different winding trails and wooden staircases, beautiful views, and more.
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I’d honestly never heard of it, and @sjems5 (a Chicago native) had never visited before. So while it’s a must-do, by no means is it super well-known. And on my last visit to Chicago we decided to give it a try.
You can see a hiking map here (and save it on your phone to reference). I’ve included some deeper details on Starved Rock State Park at the end of this post as well.
Here are a few of my tips for visiting Starved Rock:
- Get there early—both to beat the heat and the crowds! I cannot stress this enough. We were so thankful we sucked it up and woke up early on a Saturday to make the drive, because it was getting really crowded by late morning when we headed back to our cars.
- Bring plenty of water and maybe some snacks (especially in summer). We seriously sweat out our entire body weight, and were so thankful we’d brought a ton of water.
- Wear appropriate clothes and shoes. I saw a lot of people in flip flops and they were…kind of struggling. I recommend hiking sandals or close-toed shoes (that goes double for when there’s been rain and the trails are muddy).
- The vast majority of trails are not stroller or wheelchair accessible. If you’re bringing tiny peeps, I recommend a carrier. You need a minimal level of fitness to navigate the trails and go up and down the various sets of stairs.
- Bring sunscreen (and consider bug spray). Thankfully a lot of the trail is shaded (BLESS), but you’ll still get plenty of sun, and you might get eaten alive by mosquitoes (thankfully they leave me alone, but they’re quite prevalent).
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We got an early start from Berwyn (a suburb of Chicago that put us a bit closer to the park and so shortened the trip). It took us about an hour and a half to pull into the parking lot at the Starved Rock Visitor Center, and we were able to find a spot. Even that early, though, it was packed!
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Our first stop was French Canyon, a little under half a milk from the Visitor Center. It’s probably the most popular canyon in the park, partly due to proximity.
The one bummer of our visit was that they were in quite a drought and so none of the usual waterfalls were really anything more than a trickle. In the spring there’s a lovely waterfall you can walk behind (and sometimes a cool “ice fall” in the winter).
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Something I was super thankful for was that most of our hiking was in the shade, under strong tree cover…honestly it was our saving grace!
It was like mid/upper 90s and what felt like a thousand percent humidity that weekend, and so not being in the direct sun kept us from dying. We still were completely drenched in sweat by the end and glad we’d hauled big water bottles with us.
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After a brief stop overlooking one side of Wildcat Canyon, we headed down toward the lake, where the trail hugged the water for a while.
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You’ll go back inland for a while, and there are several smaller “canyons” that honestly we couldn’t even fully identify. There are a LOT of stairs though.
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This is one of the coolest parts of the park (that we saw at least), and usually has an awesome waterfall. It really was just a trickle when we were there, but still super cool.
The trail will snake along the giant limestone walls and lead you to the horseshoe-shaped canyon. It really is huge.
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We decided to go on from there toward Owl and Hidden Canyons. All-told, we hiked 8 miles that day! But we were underwhelmed by the rest of the hike past LaSalle Canyon in terms of things to see.
Maybe if we’d gone as far as Hennepin Canyon it would have been worth it, but we wished we had gone back and explored some of the other smaller trails we missed on our way in.
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However, the one thing that was great about going further out was that by this point (probably around 11:00am), the park was getting super crowded closer to the Visitor Center.
As we walked back toward our car, we were slowed down quite a bit by the crowds and everyone trying to social distance as well.
Have lunch & a flight of beers at Tangled Roots
We were absolutely RAVENOUS by this point, so detoured to nearby Utica to try out The Lone Buffalo from Tangled Roots Brewing Company (Google Maps is confusing on the subject, so yes they’re the same place).
Side note, Utica is super cute! I wish we’d had more time to hang out and just explore (though a lot was closed due to COVID). To be safe we made a reservation (this was mid-July and places were just starting to re-open).
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We each ordered a flight of their beers to try and a giant burger. The Vanilla Dobroy Nochi (a Russian imperial stout) was definitely my fave, though a bit of the Devil’s Paint Box (a citrusy IPA) was nice and refreshing.
Tired and sweaty, we made our way back to Chicago and still had a good chunk of the day to explore. If you’re spending time in the area (or live in the surrounding states), I highly recommend taking a day to hike around Starved Rock’s trails!
Details to plan your Starved Rock State Park trip:
- Make sure to use the official Starved Rock State Park website to check opening times, trail closings, parking updates, and more. Typically the park is open from sunrise to sunset.
- When we went (July 2020) the Visitor Center was closed; there were port-a-potties out front as restrooms (not sure if that’s changed).
- As I mentioned above, I STRONGLY recommend arriving early to beat the crowds and find parking (and avoid the worst of the heat in summer).
- Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen, and consider snacks and bug spray.
- Appropriate clothes and shoes are important…don’t be that guy in flip flops.
- The trails are not stroller or wheelchair accessible, so make sure you have a carrier or that your little ones are up to it. I believe dogs on a leash are welcome.
Other gorgeous American hikes you’ll love:
- Hiking Yant Flat & “Candy Cliffs” At Sunset: A Must In St. George, Utah
- Armstrong Woods: Hiking Sonoma’s Majestic Redwoods
- Hiking Oregon’s Stunning Trail of Ten Falls
- Why You Have To Visit Utah’s Underrated Snow Canyon State Park
- Hiking Sugarloaf Loop Trail (Maybe Sedona’s Most Underrated Trail??)
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